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Authors: J. A. White

The Whispering Trees

BOOK: The Whispering Trees
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DEDICATION

For Jack, Logan, and Colin—a book of monsters!

CONTENTS

Dedication

Prologue

Book One: Wexari

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Book Two: Imogen

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Book Three: The Spider Beneath The Earth

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty-One

Chapter Twenty-Two

Chapter Twenty-Three

Chapter Twenty-Four

Chapter Twenty-Five

Epilogue

Acknowledgments

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About the Author

Books by J. A. White

Credits

Copyright

About the Publisher

S
afi shifted beneath her blankets, waiting, as she did each night, for her father to return home. If only she could fall asleep, there would be none of this anxious tossing and turning, no imagining the thousand injuries that might have befallen him during the Binding. Safi would simply close her eyes, and when she opened them again Papa would be sitting by her side.

Like magic.

Tonight he was even later than usual, however, and Safi was scared. Of course, Safi was scared of lots of
things: thunder, fire, those insects with too many legs that waited until she fell asleep before crawling across her bedroom floor. But the thing that scared her most was losing Papa, so despite her fear of the dark Safi decided to walk to their neighbor's hut to see if their son, another Binder, had come home yet.

Besides
, she thought,
I need to tell Papa what I've seen
.

She was just sliding out of bed when she heard her father's telltale footsteps, heavy and slow. With a gasp of surprise, Safi leaped back beneath the blankets and smoothed them. Papa entered the room and she opened her eyes groggily, as though he had just awoken her.

“Papa?” Safi asked.

Her father's long white beard was matted with sweat and dirt. A vicious, crescent-shaped burn swelled across the dark skin of his chin.

“You're hurt,” Safi said, sitting up to touch his cheek.

“It's nothing,” said Papa.

Safi supposed that was true. Papa's entire body, especially his hands and arms, had already been marred by
similar injuries. This latest burn was hardly the worst of them.

“You need to go to sleep,” he said. “It's late.”

“I've been asleep.”

Papa raised his eyebrows.

“Well,” said Safi, “I
have
been in bed.”

“Sleep, darling one. Sleep.”

“Could I have a story first?”

“I'm well past tired,” Papa said, but already he had pulled a stool to Safi's bedside and taken a seat. “And I haven't eaten yet.”

Safi smiled. Truth be told, now that her father had returned she felt sleep tugging at her like a fishing line. But she sensed Papa's need to tell her a story, how sharing this time with his only child might heal wounds beyond the reach of any poultice.

Safi said, “Tell me how he came to be.”

“Again? This is a dark tale, love.”

“It's a good story.”

“It's not a—”

“I'm not scared.”

And despite the many fears that dominated Safi's life, it was true. In a story, the Forest Demon was just words, shackled to the tale as securely as any other character. In a story, he couldn't hurt them.

“Tell me,” Safi said.

Papa stretched his arms into the air, the stool creaking beneath his weight, and began. The tiny room was enveloped in his sonorous voice.

“In a castle on the edge of a cliff lived a princess who did not find joy the same ways as other children. She had no desire to play with the fine toys that surrounded her; only breaking them brought her the slightest satisfaction. The princess could not bear the laughter of her playmates; only their tears could make her smile. Nothing, it seemed, could fill the emptiness in her heart, and so her father, a good man but blind to his daughter's true nature, held a competition: half his kingdom's treasure for something that would bring the princess joy.”

“You forgot about Rygoth,” said Safi. “She could control animals and was the only one who warned—”

“It's late,” Papa said, “and you know all about Rygoth. Besides, she comes back at the end.”

“But it's better when you tell it right.”

Papa made a motion to stand. “It's better when I tell it at all, no?”

Safi nodded eagerly.

“Now where was I?” Papa asked, easing back into his seat. “Ah—the competition. Word of it went out to every corner of the World, and from distant shores came inventors and toymakers, talespinners and gamesmiths, poets and architects, all eager to win the king's prize. Each morning the princess sat in her throne and was presented with a dazzling array of treasures. There was a metallic child who could play every game ever invented but always let the princess win; a dollhouse with large windows through which the princess could watch the inhabitants talk and play, argue and grow old; and a loom that could
weave the princess's dreams into beautiful tapestries.

“At each of these remarkable gifts the princess simply turned away, offering not a word. Forty days passed in such a manner. And then, on the forty-first day, a man came bearing a book wrapped in black leaves.”

“Sordyr,” Safi whispered, and though she had promised not to be afraid, her voice trembled just a bit.

“He promised the princess that this book could give her the power to do anything she wanted. The king's adviser, a powerful
wexari
named Rygoth . . .”

“Finally,” said Safi.

“. . . pleaded with him not to let the princess keep the book. But the king, at last seeing true happiness in his daughter's eyes, refused to listen.” Papa sighed. “Sordyr had not lied—the grimoire gave the princess the power to make all her dark wishes come to life. In a few short days the kingdom was nothing but ruins, and the princess was no more.”

“Only Rygoth survived,” Safi said.

“And tracked Sordyr to the island he had made his home, intent on stopping him from hurting anyone else.”

“She should have killed—”

“No,” said Papa. “Rygoth believed in the sanctity of all life, and no one should ever be faulted for that. Besides, it was Sordyr's
power
that was the true danger, and so Rygoth created a beast called Niersook. Just a single bite from its fangs and Sordyr would be no different from any other man.”

Safi closed her eyes. No one knew exactly what Niersook looked like, so every time Papa told this story she envisioned something different. Tonight Niersook was a giant centipede with horns on its feet.

Her father continued. “Sordyr was more powerful than Rygoth had imagined, however. He held dominion over the plants and trees, and slayed Niersook with a hail of black thorns before it could get near him. A great battle commenced. Sordyr attacked Rygoth with strangling vines and monsters made of roots and branches, and Rygoth
fought back with birds and beasts and the insects beneath the earth. The island shook. In the end, however, Rygoth was no match for Sordyr's viciousness, and knowing that her life was coming to a close, she used all her magic on one final spell, imprisoning Sordyr on the island where he could hurt no one.”

“Except us,” Safi said.

Papa nodded. “Except us.”

He placed a kiss on Safi's cheek, and she giggled at the touch of his scratchy beard.

“Now go to bed,” he said, placing the stool in the corner of the room. “One of us needs to make breakfast tomorrow.”

“I had a vision.”

Papa froze. “What did you see?” he asked.

“A girl journeying through the Thickety,” Safi said. “Tall with black hair. There's a boy with her. They don't know it yet, but they're coming here.”

Papa's mouth twisted into a nervous grimace. He peeked out the window, checking for movement.

“Did you tell anyone about this?” he whispered.

“No! Of course not!”

“These dreams—we can't let him find out—”

“I didn't tell
anyone
. I promise.”

Papa stroked his beard and considered her words. “Do you know who she is?” he asked.

“I know some things,” Safi said. “She comes from a distant village just outside the Thickety. And she has great magic, yet carries no grimoire.”

“Interesting,” said Papa. Tucking the covers beneath Safi's body, he leaned forward and spoke softly into her ear. “Perhaps she is
wexari
. Perhaps she is coming to save us from him at long last.”

Safi shook her head. “It's not like that. I saw what happens after the girl gets here,” she said. “Destruction. Fire. Death. Not just here, but in the World itself.” Safi clasped her father's hands. “This girl is not coming here to save us. She's the one who's going to destroy us all.”

BOOK: The Whispering Trees
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